How aesthetics—a key category of axiology, or the philosophy of value—became a meme.


Recently, the word “aesthetic” has emerged or re-emerged in the young Western lexicon, which is exciting—to me, anyway, since this re-emergence would seem to reflect a sincere interest in value theory despite the nihilistic thread that’s trending hard on the human tapestry. A simple scan of online communities will reflect this fact. Since my interest here is philosophical rather than empirical, I won’t belabor the point with needless statistics. However, whether this aesthetic trend should be treated as a meme remains a serious point of debate.

The “aesthetic” realm of philosophy governs an individual’s encounter with art, or, more broadly, beauty. This encounter is actuated by sense perception and given content by an idea of beauty. This idea of beauty may be private—i.e., founded upon one’s own sensibilities; shared—i.e., brought to mind by an inner-social notion of what other people are thought to find beautiful; technical, as in a craftsperson’s ultimate understanding of their craft, its parameters and perfection, etc. Finally, beauty may be construed not as an idea, but as reaction borne out in automatic motion: tears of joy, chills, goosebumps.

Moreover, beauty may very well be a real quality of objects rather than an ideal quality of minds. When we mention a band’s aesthetic or a restaurant’s aesthetic or a story’s aesthetic, we seem to be describing a real quality of the band or the restaurant or the book. However, when we describe the aesthetics of these things, we don’t necessarily say that the things are beautiful. It’s not uncommon to hear somebody say that an aesthetic is trash. That’s why when we speak of aesthetics, we not only evoke the beautiful, but also the ugly. Here there is an obvious crossover with moral judgments, hence theories like moral aestheticism: that good actions are beautiful, bad ones ugly. We could even see an ethics in which good character is thought to be beautiful, whereas bad character is thought to be ugly. More still, we could strike contradictions; for example, there are ugly-looking people who do beautiful things for others and there are people with beautiful minds who by accident make the world an ugly place. We can use our imaginations here. These contradictions turn upon yet another coupling: appearance / reality, which is precisely the point where aesthetics became a meme.

The memefication of aesthetics occurred when people—critics, anonymous nobodies on the Internet—concerned themselves entirely with appearances: a musician who makes music videos in a bucket hat is instantly labelled a sadboy; a chef who transmutes ingredients into gels is now a molecular gastronomist; an author who employs fragmentation is postmodern, etc. All along, the art object is lifted higher and higher by an Internet wave until it crashes (becomes uncool to art communities) and goes mainstream. Then, the musician or chef or author is typecast as this, that, and the other.

This is all to say that memes turn upon a contrarian impulse: the meme is first an underground sensation, like a hilarious inside joke, which goes about its course, eventually ceases to hit with its intended audience, and is quickly disbanded while, at the same time, scavengers appearing late to the scene attempt to resurrect the spectacle. Some go as far as generating their own content, like news reporters who consider random interviews constituent to great breakthroughs in the case—meanwhile, the original artist behind the meme sees what’s happening with its reception and, in the spirit of individuality, determines to orchestrate a reversal of expectations, which may reflect an ironic interest or a sincere change of heart. Ordinary artists gain in meme status as a matter of luck—genius artists were planning it all along.

What’s considered fashionable in art, clothing, or even opinion tends to swing on a pendulum through time. What’s considered timeless persists through memefication and prevails itself upon the human tapestry. Everybody likes it when people can get to the point quickly, so, to keep it short, I’d like to offer an aesthetic principle for artists, craftspeople, and audiences alike: the meme principle.

the meme principle: Every thought, theory, art object, or invention released publicly is necessarily a meme, but can contingently be made to be a timeless meme only if its aesthetic executes a real reversal of appearance and reality to the extent that even when the meme is known to be trite, played-out, commonplace, or downright annoying, it can be denied by nobody that it has always contained a kernel of value and probably always will.

I want to give a few prime examples of the meme principle in action. First, consider screwed n’ chopped music. Screwed n’ chopped hip hop was a smash hit of a meme in the ‘90s underground music scene. The consensus here is that DJ Screw (1971-2000) invented the style in Houston, Texas. The meme moved across the South and converged with Memphis underground “devil s***” hip-hop. Three 6 Mafia even mentioned the meme outright on the song “Big Bizness” off Mystic Stylez, their first big release—“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah mane f*** that shit, mane screw that s*** for all my [redacted]s in Texas […]”—an open admission that they are doing nothing original by putting the chop on a track, and that everybody knows this, but that these appearances really don’t matter, because screwed n’ chopped music will always be valuable therefore timeless. Ten years after DJ Screw’s death, Oneohtrix Point Never released a tape called Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. The cassette is composed of screwed n’ chopped music that has little to do with Southern rap—in fact, the source material is a set of pop tracks ranging from Toto to Jojo to MJ to Tupac. Vaporwave—one of the first meme genres—was born.

Next, consider saucemaking in cooking. Sauces are memes. Some sauces are, anyway. Look no further than Sriracha. Despite the fact that sauces have been memefied, and despite the fact that sauces are unnecessary novelties in the first place, they will always have value. The timeless quality of sauce rests in its endless potential to generate more memes. How many famous dishes are famous because of their sauce? Duck à l’Orange, “Mongolian” beef, and Chicken tikka masala are famous because of their sauces. Virtually every pasta dish receives its name from its sauce. The entire genre of barbecue is bottled up and sold as a sauce. Although it would appear to be rather trite for a world-class chef to do Duck à l’Orange, the reality is that duck served with a sauce of oranges is probably going to be good—insomuch as it is done properly. So much for sauce.

Finally, fragmentation. Fragmentation—cornerstone of Postmodern literature—is nothing new. Fragmentation generates mystery. An author can pretty reliably make their narrative mysterious by writing it in fragments. Not only that, but actual manuscripts become mysterious where certain parts are physically lost or exist as legend—a lot of ancient texts are especially interesting because of this. “Were this sentence not a fragment, what would the other half say?” or, “Why would a civilization fail to preserve this text?” or, “Could it be that somebody deliberately destroyed this manuscript?”

Some of the most famously mysterious, therefore interesting, figures in Western literature either wrote nothing or wrote things that survived only in fragmentary form. Sappho, the Lesbian poet, wrote a number of beautiful poems about love and death. The beauty of these poems is intensified by the fact that they exist as fragments. Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher, lived a life riddled with paradox. He did write a single scroll, On Nature, and famously stashed it away in the Temple of Artemis—third of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Nietzsche, kindred spirit of Heraclitus, praised his coolly unabashed style in the unfinished Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. The life of Socrates is essentially fragmentary—he left behind nothing but a legacy. The legacy of Socrates exists twice-removed from the man himself: first, a great number of authors (most famously Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes) extracted themes and sayings to paint a portrait of his life and times; second, many philosophers (less famously Diogenes Laertius, Leonard Nelson, and yours truly) extrapolate principles from these fragments to create or synthesize a positive Socratic philosophy.

So, it is not at all surprising to see that fragmentation is employed to this day in literature, as it’s a tried, trued, and timeless meme. […] a void that the reader must use their imagination to fill […] a text, otherwise static, becomes a living text […] the author becomes immortal… [manuscript breaks off.]


1 (I mean, if we choose to distinguish between real / ideal & objective / subjective & all that.)